Op-Ed: Al-Sisi uses his own view of Islam against Islamists

Posted May 11, 2014 by Ken Hanly
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the front-runner in the presidential race and former army chief is now using his own vision of Islam in his battle against the Muslim Brotherhood
A picture taken on February 13  2014 shows Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi smiling during a...
A picture taken on February 13, 2014 shows Egyptian army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi smiling during a meeting in Moscow
Vasily Maximov, AFP/File
As Islam is a powerful influence with Egyptian society, al-Sisi is harnessing that power in order to crush Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and give him even more power. He now portrays himself as a defender of Islam. Al-Sisi now projects himself as a religious reformer. In an interview on TV on May 5 al-Sisi said: "I see that the religious discourse in the entire Islamic world has cost Islam its humanity. This requires us, and for that matter all leaders, to review their positions."
As well as constantly praising the military, Al-Sisi makes constant references to God and morality. While encouraging the role of Islam in Egyptian society at the same time the Egyptian government is moving to curb Islamist influence by increasing controls on mosques.
Khalil al-Anani of Johns Hopkins University says: "He is trying to replace the Islamists and counter the Muslim Brotherhood's argument that he is anti-Islam.There is a religious aspect to his character and at the same time it is a political tool to strengthen his popularity and legitimacy among conservative Egyptians, He has some kind of religious vision for society."
Ironically it was former president Morsi who chose al-Sisi as a replacement for Minister of Defense Muhammad Tantawi. Morsi saw al-Sisi as a person willing to be subordinate to the elected government although the army retained many powers under the Morsi government and under the constitution passed while he was in power. Western observers as well thought that al-Sisi would professionalize the army and reduce its role in politics. When Sisi took over he immediately removed or retired many officers who were prominent under the Mubarak regime.
The Muslim Brotherhood often praised Sisi. Gamal Hishmat, official spokesperson for the Brotherhood's ruling Freedom and Justice Party said that Sisi was "100 per cent patriotic". Brotherhood members even defended Sisi against criticism from a Salafist named Hazem Ismail who criticized Sisi for making popular appeals to support the military. However, after leading the coup following huge demonstrations against Morsi , Sisi turned on the Brotherhood and crushed the protests against the coup with a great deal of violence that left hundreds and perhaps more than a thousand dead, mostly Brotherhood supporters.
Now Sisi maintains that the Muslim Brotherhood is finished. The Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization. In a mockery of justice hundreds of Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death in two mass trials. Sisi has rejected any public role for a group that a year ago was behind the ruling party and president. Western governments and the Obama administration called for inclusiveness but Sisi seems determined to drive the Brotherhood underground. This will no doubt increase the number of Islamists who will use violence against the regime. This in turn will reinforce his view that they need to be put down by force.
Sisi's views on Islam and Democracy were set out long ago in a 17 page thesis he wrote while at the US Army War College in 2006. The entire document is available here and well worth reading not only for his views on Islam and democracy but for his interpretation of US policy in the Middle East as well. He is well aware of the self-interested reasons behind US support for military strongmen in Egypt. Judicial Watch's article on the thesis calls it "downright alarming". The thesis sees Islam as integral to any legitimate government:
“Democracy cannot be understood in the Middle East without an understanding of the concept of El Kalafa,” or the caliphate, which Sisi defines as the 70-year period when Muslims were led by Muhammad and his immediate successors. Re-establishing this kind of leadership “is widely recognized as the goal for any new form of government” in the Middle East, he asserts. The central political mechanisms in such a system, he believes, are al-bi'ah (fealty to a ruler) and shura (a ruler’s consultation with his subjects). Apologists for Islamic rule sometimes suggest that these concepts are inherently democratic, but in reality they fall far short of the democratic mark.
Sisi admits that it will be a challenge to incorporate Islam into government but that this must be done. While repressing Islamists who do not support his rule, at the same time, Sisi has courted support from even more radical Islamists such as those in the Salafist al-Nour Party. He also has good relations with Saudi Arabia which also regards the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization but at the same time itself supports Wahabbism a conservative form of Islam. The new Egyptian constitution preserves the provision that "the principles of sharia law derived from established Sunni canons" are to be Egypt's main source of legislation.